STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — The consensus around Nebraska’s football program — if not within the walls, then certainly outside them — was that Saturday afternoon’s game against No. 10 Penn State here was destined to be ugly.
The chorus was so unified, so sure the Huskers stood no chance against the Nittany Lions, that as kickoff approached, one almost had to wonder if something weird was about to happen.
Could Nebraska keep it close? Could they find a way to slow the Nittany Lions, catch them flat-footed and pull a massive upset?
Then Saquon Barkley touched the ball for the first time, and any of those lingering thoughts were squelched.
The electric junior running back took PSU's third snap, a zone-read handoff, and raced through a hole on the left side, past a fruitless, diving tackle attempt from NU safety Kieron Williams, 65 yards to the end zone.
In cold, rainy reality, the Heisman Trophy hopeful and his comrades were just getting warmed up.
PSU put 42 points and 439 yards on the hapless Blackshirts before halftime and powered a 56-44 victory that the hosts cemented with a 28-0 second quarter before the Huskers made the score closer with three fourth-quarter scores.
“This is going to turn,” NU defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said. “This is going to get back to where everybody in the state and the players and the people that work at this awesome university expect it to be. There’s not much difference from one team to the next, although the scoreboard can look very tilted at times.”
For now, though only six days remain in the Huskers’ season. At 4-7 overall and 3-5 in Big Ten play, they will not qualify for a bowl game — the first time since 2007 the program has failed to do so — and must beat Iowa to avoid the program's first season of four wins or fewer since 1961.
The scoreboard has been tilted often as the Huskers have dropped five of their past six and been outscored by a combined 114 points, including losses by 21 to Wisconsin, 42 to Ohio State, 33 to Minnesota and 12 to the Nittany Lions in front of an announced crowd of 106,722 that braved temperatures in the mid-30s and a second-half downpour to watch their team pound Nebraska for 609 total yards.
“We’re just trying to find things for the players and like I said, it’s very, very hard right now,” Diaco said. “We’re really not doing … it’s hard executing right now and my heart goes out to the players. I want so badly to help them in the game and the plays are hard right now.”
The Huskers actually led 10-7 after a pair of special teams miscues from the hosts. A Caleb Lightbourn punt bounded off a Nittany Lions blocker and into the arms of redshirt freshman Marquel Dismuke, setting up a drive from the PSU 34 that covered 23 yards but ended in a 27-yard Drew Brown field goal and a 7-3 game.
After NU forced a three-and-out, Nittany Lions punter Blake Gilliken shanked a punt that set up the Huskers at the PSU 36. Junior quarterback Tanner Lee hit Stanley Morgan for 18 yards and JD Spielman for 17 to the 1-yard line before Devine Ozigbo plunged into the end zone for a 10-7 lead with 6 minutes, 17 seconds remaining in the opening frame.
The Nittany Lions, though, exploded for 35 straight points before the half, turning a fast start for the visitors into a rout by mounting consecutive, emphatic scoring drives that covered 66, 85, 67, 65 and 78 yards.
In the process, they shredded the Blackshirts in about every way possible.
Trace McSorley passed the ball efficiently and ran it smartly, rolling up 299 yards and three touchdowns in the opening 30 minutes.
“We got him in the backfield on how many instances?” Diaco lamented of the junior quarterback, who finished with 371 total yards and accounted for four touchdowns. “And then he scooches free and either runs or throws the ball down the field. There were several third downs where we had an opportunity on third down and he converts and makes a play. Kudos to him and their outfit for making those plays.”
PSU converted 7-of-8 on third down in the first half and 8-of-12 overall.
The Nittany Lions’ zone-read game with McSorley and Barkley opened lanes and left defenders grasping at air.
“At the point of attack, you’re there and that player has to make that play,” said Diaco, who indicated the team tried to change the way it defended the zone-read after Minnesota rushed for 409 yards against it last weekend. “And if not, there’s not all kinds of other people to converge on the ball. It’s a game of chess when you’re moving your puzzle pieces around and when you’re not doing a lot of things well, fundamentally in particular, it can be hard.”
And Barkley. What a player.
In what was almost certainly his last home game before he becomes a high first-round pick in the NFL Draft in the spring, the 5-foot-11, 230-pounder racked up 208 (158 rushing and 66 receiving on five catches) of his 224 total yards and all three touchdowns in the first half alone.
“We were aware of all of it,” Diaco said. “They didn’t do anything that we didn’t prepare. They didn’t run any formations or plays that the players didn’t practice or that we didn’t prepare for as a group. Kudos to Penn State and their players and their staff.
“It’s an excellent offense, a very explosive offense, and we’re not executing very well on defense right now. That’s obviously the understatement of the century.”
The Nittany Lions racked up seven plays of at least 22 yards, including Barkley gains of 65, 30, 24 and 24, in the first half.
“It can look really bad when you have one guy out of their fit and the dude can run it right through the A gap and run downhill,” linebacker Chris Weber said. “It makes it look really bad when just one guy is out of position.”
While the defense floundered, the offense did little to pick it up. Following the two short scoring drives, the Huskers went three-and-out five straight times.
“When you have a lull like that where you’re not doing anything like that and they’re moving the ball, it’s a bad recipe,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said.
PSU averaged 9 yards per snap and the Huskers averaged 2.9 before halftime.
“We couldn’t string together enough stops to get the ball back to our offense and it kind of snowballed before we played better in the second half,” Weber said.
If the first half felt to Husker fans insultingly like Sept. 9’s trip to Oregon — the Ducks racked up 42 points on 409 first-half yards that day — then so, too, did the third quarter.
Mikale Wilbon ripped off a 24-yard touchdown run on NU’s second possession of the third quarter. Lee followed that up with a 51-yard beauty up the left sideline to Morgan (7 catches, 185 yards) and then a 22-yard scoring strike to senior wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El to close the gap to 42-24 with 17:34 remaining.
Lee added fourth-quarter TD passes to Morgan and Jack Stoll, which were sandwiched around a 1-yard Wilbon TD run.
Where the Blackshirts kept getting stops against the Ducks early in the season, though, they could not slow the Nittany Lions for long as the 2017 campaign grinds toward a brutal end.
McSorley made sure of that.
He engineered 79- and 75-yard scoring drives in the fourth quarter to push the lead back to 32 points before the Huskers tacked on 20 points in the final 6:32. They never had a realistic chance of conquering the four-score deficit, but NU players and coaches said they liked the fight displayed by the offense.
Much more than that, though, the afternoon at Beaver Stadium was about a defense that had little in the way of answers for a dynamic, powerful PSU offense.
“It can get really bad, and it looked really bad, but it’s really not that,” Diaco said. “For me, the people of Nebraska, the players, the high school prospects, people that work at the university, it’s a great, great place. It’s a very special place, and with just some more here and there, this thing will get turned right back around.
"It’s a great place, it’s a special place and it won’t be down long.”